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The Memo: GOP fears damage done by Trump
As a week dominated by President Trump's response to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., draws to a close, many Republicans are worried that serious damage has been done to their party.
Specifically, they argue that Trump may have set back years of efforts to make the GOP more appealing to an increasingly diverse American electorate.
There is no mistaking the seriousness with which they view the situation.
One veteran Republican strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, told The Hill that Trump's response was "a f---ing disaster." The source added, "I have no idea where we go from here."
Few were assuaged by the news Friday of White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon's dismissal. Bannon, who came to Trump from the "alt-right" world of Breitbart News, was a voice for economic nationalism within the White House.
"I don't think it does," said former Republican National Committee communications director Doug Heye, when asked if Bannon's departure made a difference. "Nobody makes their decision about who to support based on the staff in the White House."
Many Republicans have rushed to distance themselves from Trump, after he proclaimed that there were "very fine people" on both sides in Charlottesville. A 32-year-old counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed last Saturday after she was hit by a car allegedly driven by a man who harbored far-right views.
Marchers from neo-Nazi organizations were among those who had come to the Virginia city for an event billed as "Unite the Right." They held a torch-lit parade at the University of Virginia last Friday night and chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans.
Trump twice gave public remarks that were widely condemned as being too equivocal. In particular, a chaotic news conference at Trump Tower on Tuesday left even seasoned political observers shell-shocked.
The two living Republican ex-presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, released a joint statement implicitly condemning Trump. So, too, did the party's leaders in both chambers of Congress, Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
On Friday, the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, joined the chorus of condemnation. In a Facebook post, Romney lamented that what Trump had said about Charlottesville "caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep and the vast heart of America to mourn."
But the high-profile criticisms may not be enough to mitigate the damage wreaked by Trump. He has the bully pulpit of the presidency, and the firestorm around his comments reached parts of popular culture - late-night talk shows, for example - where statements from McConnell or a Facebook post by Romney hold little sway.
"It's terribly frustrating," said Heye, who added that it would be incorrect to view the damage as confined to black or Latino voters. There are plenty of white people who find such a stance unpalatable, he suggested.
Republicans fear Trump's comments are "turning off a broad swath of voters" he said. "It's obviously off-putting to minority voters - but not just minority voters."
Trump's defenders would make a very different case, noting among other things that the self-declared experts of the Washington GOP were enthused by previous presidential nominees, such as Romney in 2012 and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008, both of whom failed to win the presidency as Trump did last November.
As the president himself likes to point out, he won the White House by scoring victories in states that Republicans had not won at the presidential level for a generation, notably the so-called "Blue Wall" states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
"We didn't break it, we shattered that sucker," then-President-elect Trump told a rally late last year.
Some people in Trump's orbit say there is no reason why he cannot repeat the achievement again.
In an interview with The American Prospect before his abrupt departure from the White House on Friday, Bannon insisted that the GOP could "crush the Democrats" if liberals were to stay "focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism."
One problem with that theory, of course, is that it is Trump himself who has seemed so focused on race and identity for the past week. And his comments have been welcomed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and others on the extreme right.
More broadly, those who argue that the GOP desperately needs to improve its image with minorities and young people say their point still stands, regardless of Trump's election victory.
"Nothing has repealed the long-term demographic trends in this country, and nothing has changed the imperative for Republicans to appeal to a more diverse electorate if they hope to win national elections," said strategist and pollster Whit Ayres, a long-time advocate of the need for the party to modernize its appeal.
"Trump managed to stitch together an electoral college majority while coming millions of votes shy of a majority of the popular vote," Ayres added.
Trump lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by about 2.9 million votes, or around 2 percentage points, even as he won a relatively comfortable 306-232 victory in the Electoral College.
The strategist who described Trump's comments as a "disaster" said that the best way forward for candidates in next year's midterms could be to run on local issues to avoid "nationalizing" their races. But even that might not be enough, the strategist added.
To win competitive races as a Republican in the current polarized environment, the source said, "you have got to have virtually all the Trump people and a good chunk of people who can't stand the man. How do you walk that fine line?"
Moderate Republican voices such as Heye, meanwhile, are still grappling with their shock at what has transpired.
"In Charlottesville, we are talking about neo-Nazis chanting truly vile things. To see the president come out the way he did - it's impossible for me to try to convince an African-American, or Hispanic, or Jewish voter why they should vote Republican," Heye said.
"What they're hearing is: We don't like you."
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.